U.S. arts cabler plans expansion

Ovation - The Arts Network, one of the only U.S. cable outlets devoted exclusively to the visual and performing arts, is looking to increase its coproduction opportunities with overseas producers, and are now actively working on more original productions....
October 1, 1998

Ovation – The Arts Network, one of the only U.S. cable outlets devoted exclusively to the visual and performing arts, is looking to increase its coproduction opportunities with overseas producers, and are now actively working on more original productions.

‘Traditionally, we have enjoyed working on coproductions that have been done with a variety of international broadcasters, usually under the umbrella of a major program distributor,’ says Susan Wittenberg, VP of programming. ‘But we are now actively looking to expand our international strategic alliances,’ she says, ‘which is a key reason for my presence at mipcom.’ Wittenberg has been with Ovation since its infancy. She was originally hired five years ago as a consultant when the network was just starting to develop its programming plan.

Ovation’s largest coproduction partner is London-based NVC Arts, a Warner Music Group Company. Ovation has also coproduced with Amaya in Paris, PBS, the BBC, Channel 4 U.K., NHK Japan, France’s ARTE, Rhombus in Canada, and RM Associates, headquartered in Munich and London. ‘We work with all the major suppliers and get a great deal of programming from outside the U.S., as most of this type of product is produced overseas.’

Ovation has signed an extensive agreement with NVC Arts (Wittenberg was unwilling to release the terms) to continue coproducing many of the arts specials that will premiere on the network through 1999. This new agreement will involve more than 50 productions, and extends a relationship that has developed more than 55 programs over the past two years.

New Ovation/NVC Arts coproductions scheduled to air over the coming year are: Afro-Cuban All Stars, which explores the golden age of Cuban music in the 1950s, and Maxim Vengerov: Virtuoso With Intent, which profiles the Russian-born violinist.

Ovation’s programming supply is a combination of original material, coproductions and acquisitions. ‘Original programming is completed on a work project basis; we work with a number of different producers around the country on these pieces,’ says Wittenberg. They’ve included a short series with the Smithsonian, many shorter art news pieces for an umbrella program segment called OvatioNews, commentaries with artists, and programming on opening museum exhibitions.

Ovation has a diverse lineup of premiere programming for their third fall season, which covers the entire range of the visual and performing arts: theater, music, opera, dance and documentaries. ‘We program a broad spectrum of arts and cultural programs – from a travel series like Jools Holland’s Beat Route, to a performance by the violinist Nigel Kennedy,’ says Wittenberg.

Garnering the most attention this fall will be Rings of Passion: Five Emotions in World Art, a 60-minute special which explores the power of art to evoke human emotion across various cultures. The US$375,000 special was produced in association with PBS and Catherine Tatget of Tatget Lasseur Productions in New York. A first for both broadcasters, the program will premiere in a special simulcast on both Ovation and PBS. Wittenberg believes there is a trend toward more of these high profile types of series, which will lead to ‘more competition for the big programs and events.’

Some of Ovation’s best-received programming includes profile docs about artists and performers, behind-the-scenes profiles, and short performances interspersed with edutainment information. All forms of music are represented, from celtic, jazz and pop to opera, world and classical.

Wittenberg is always interested in cultural programming that fits with an arts format, ‘especially programming that features American artists or American companies. We do prefer documentaries more so than performances, but anything that is fresh, new and with a unique bent on culture definitely gets our attention,’ she says.

Currently, Ovation is in development on a number of art series and documentaries, including a major profile on the artist Jackson Pollock. They are also looking for more first-run and event-oriented programs from the U.S.

Producers with completed one-offs or multi-part series should send a VHS program screener (NTSC preferable, but PAL accepted) and a short one-sheet synopsis. Producers of projects still in development should outline a short proposal, noting Ovation’s desired program participation, a solid breakdown of production plans including a full and detailed program budget, and a sample reel of other work on VHS.

The network is planning on launching internationally in the near future, says Harold E. Morse, president and CEO. ‘We are looking at Latin America for a full-time channel version of the U.S. network. The main difference is that the network would skew performance series rather than documentaries, which is what we focus on in the U.S. Our research has shown that in Latin America, performance programming is not as accessible to the population as a whole.’

Launched on April 21, 1996, Virginia-based Ovation is carried as a basic service and is available in over seven million households across the U.S. Distribution is expected to increase to 10-12 million by the end of the year. Uplink and technical facilities are based in Denver, Colorado at the TCI National Digital Television Center. Ovation’s investors include The New York Times Company, Time Warner Cable and the Howard Heinz Endowment.

At the present time, Ovation does not receive formal Nielsen ratings. The company anticipates being metered by Nielsen in 1999. ‘We expect a .3% prime-time rating when metered, and will do coincidentals with Nielsen in late 1998 and early 1999,’ said a company spokesperson.

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